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Two U.S. icons lead the fight vs. Parkinson's

Muhammad Ali, Michael J. Fox on personal and public battles against Parkinson's and what it is like being front and center in a polarizing debate. A Katie Couric exclusive.

Parkinson’s is a progressive, neurological disorder affecting 1.5 million Americans.

In addition to the late Pope John Paul II, and former Attorney General Janet Reno, there are two other prominent names associated with Parkinsons: One is a great actor, and the other is simply, “The Greatest” — Michael J. Fox and Muhammad Ali.

For Michael J. Fox, Ali isn’t just an icon, he’s an ally. “Muhammad Ali walks in and people gasp,” he says. “Even little kids who have no idea who he is.  They just know he’s someone magical.”

Ali’s reach goes way beyond boxing, and now that Michael’s in his corner, they’re a powerful one-two punch in the fight against Parkinson’s. 

WASHINGTON, : Boxing legend Muhammad Ali (L) and actor Michael J. Fox (R) talk before the start of a Senate subcommittee on Labor, Health, Human Services and Education hearing on Parkinson's Disease 22 May 2002 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The celebrities who have Parkinson's asked the panel for more funds for Parkinson's research. AFP POTO/Stephen JAFFE (Photo credit should read STEPHEN JAFFE/AFP/Getty Images)Stephen Jaffe / AFP

"Sometimes he’ll look at me and he’ll tell me a joke without saying anything and he’ll make me laugh," says Fox. "And then other times he can look at me and I can tell he’s saying ‘This sucks doesn’t it?’  I mean, what are a couple of pretty young guys like us doing in this boat?"

I had the rare opportunity to visit with the champ and his wife, Lonnie, at the Parkinson’s Research center that bears his name in Phoenix, Arizona.

For Lonnie, if anybody can illustrate the visible effects of what Parkinson’s can do to a person, it’s with Muhammad. “Because of what he was and what it has done to him now.  Not that he’s anybody to be pitied, but it is something.”

Ali is a symbol of defiance and courage — and perhaps Fox, a man two-thirds his size, is the only person who isn’t overshadowed by Ali’s still towering presence.

Lonnie credits Michael for inspiring her husband to speak out.

It was interesting because when he met Michael, Michael sort of became the voice. And he saw Michael go out in front of a whole lot of people and start talking about Parkinson’s disease. Michael was just being very courageous about it, and not hiding it. After that, Muhammad started doing the same thing,” says his wife.  

Muhammad’s daughter Rasheda is doing her part too. She’s written a book called “I’ll Hold Your Hand So You Won’t Fall,” inspired by her two children.

One day, Rasheda's son Nico asked her, “Why is Poppy shaking?” To which, Rasheda replied, “Poppy has Parkinson’s.” 

“He looked at me like I was speaking another language because, certainly, Parkinson’s disease doesn’t mean anything to a 4 1/2-year-old,” she says.  “It was then that I started to study. I said, ‘I have to learn a little bit more and be able to explain this illness to my two kids because they want to know, they have questions about this very complicated illness that I can’t explain.’”

Her book is a children’s guide to Parkinson’s, and symptoms are explained in simple terms, along with easy-to-read explanations.

Rasheda says despite the fact her dad’s fancy footwork has given way to the slow shuffle of Parkinson’s, he’s still the boss.  Or, as she puts it, “he’s still large and in charge.”

In the foreword, Muhammad writes that “What is important is to never lose faith and to never stop living each day to the fullest extent possible.”

For Rasheda, he lives by that every day. “I think that’s important for people to know that because you have Parkinson’s, your life isn’t over.  It’s just begun.”